For Angela Merkel, it was an uncommon note of pessimism. The German chancellor, to whom all in Europe look to for leadership and guidance (even when it’s unwelcome,) arrived at the summit of European leaders in the Slovakian capital of Bratislava Friday and said that "Europe is in a critical situation."
It almost did not need to be said, and the fact that it was drew attention to the fact that she is no longer the EU’s tower of strength. Germany is divided over her generous welcome to some one million migrants this past year. Worse, the third place her Christian Democratic Union took earlier this month in the regional elections in Mecklenberg-Vorpomern—where it was beaten by the second-placed far right, anti immigration, anti-Muslim group, Alternative for Deutschland—showed what the ruling CDU might expect in local elections on Sunday and in the national elections next year. Merkel still leads Europe’s healthiest economy and most stable government, but in a few weeks, she has dropped off her pedestal to become another harried European leader, battling a shift to the right.
This is the first meeting of the European heads of government since Britain's decision to leave the EU. Once implemented, the Brexit decision means the group will lose its second largest economy and most powerful military state. Some leaders and officials see this as an opportunity for European nations to move closer without the hindrance of a country that kept itself out of the euro zone and out of the Schengen no-passport agreement. This, however, overlooks the fact that other states do not want centralization.
These nations include the so-called Visegrad Four: the former Communist Central European states of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and the host, Slovakia. The quartet tabled a joint document at the meeting, arguing for more power to be returned to national parliaments, continued reliance for defense on NATO rather than a European army, free movement of labor and more inclusive EU negotiations.
As the leaders met all were conscious that many of their colleagues face tough elections over the next year. Austria will rerun its residential election on December 4; the favorite is the far right Freedom Party candidate Norbert Hofer, narrowly beaten in May this year and now leading the Green Party Leader Alexander van dear Bellen by 52-48 in a recent poll.
The Netherlands holds parliamentary elections in March next year, with Geert Wilders, leader of the far right Freedom Party, also ahead in the polls. Wilders says that as prime minister he would "instantly” pull his country out of the EU.
France's presidential election is next April and May; Marine Le Pen, leader of the far right National Front, is likely to go into the second round. Few expect her to win, but a good showing on her part would boost her party in the parliamentary elections as well as force the new president —likely from the center right — to adopt some of her agenda.
Then the big one: the German parliamentary elections, in August or September next year. This, still a year away, is harder to predict. Merkel remains the most popular politician in Germany, and the Alternative fur Deutschland has had little time to raise the profile of its leader, Frauke Petry. Petry, a 41-year old chemist, talks tough, calling for police to be allowed to shoot migrants trying to enter Germany illegally. That may be too red-meat even for those opposed to immigration.
Merkel is fighting hard, but she was booed at a rally for the CDU candidate in the city election in Berlin on Sunday—another indication of her declining standing.
All leaders must make electoral calculations, and for the moment, these are strictly national. For many, voters’ restless antagonism to immigration is further fuelled by high youth unemployment—especially in Greece (which remains in the economic intensive care ward) Spain, Italy and France. This is widely feared to be a rebellion in the making as promised upturns in the economy fail to emerge, and the prospect of a life on welfare, or in dead-end employment, sinks in.
Italy, a major but presently ailing economy, causes most concern, because of its size. On Thursday, the employers' federation, Confindustria, reported that it was downgrading its forecast growth for this year and the government said it would produce revised forecasts later this month. Luca Paolozzi, head of Confindustria's research unit, pointed out that Italy had not grown since 2000—a 16-year stagnation which the country seems unable to shake off.
The continued stagnation of the southern economies, above all the continued low employment levels, creates a widening gulf between north and south. The north, led by Germany, calls for more reforms; the south begs for an end to austerity.
Nothing in that grim standoff was changed by the Friday meeting. The leaders adopted a road map of reforms and initiatives, but few details were readily available. Merkel and President Francois Hollande of France held a joint press conference, showing in their togetherness one of the largest foundation stones of the Union—an end to centuries of bloodshed between France and Germany. There were, said a spokesman, no recriminations.
But this was billed as an informal talk: a formal meeting would have had to include the UK, still a member even as—according to Prime Minister Theresa May— "Brexit means Brexit". The remaining months of the EU’s dreary year will tell whether or not the alliance has the will, the energy and the solidarity to preserve its shape and its mission in hard times. Hard times which are, by most indications, set to get harder.
John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is Senior Research Fellow. Lloyd has written several books, including What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics. He is also a contributing editor at FT and the founder of FT Magazine.